King Josiah, the grandson of Hezekiah, began to reign in Judah when he was only eight years old (2 Kings 22:1). His reign began in 640 B.C. and it says in 2 Kings 22:3 that in the eighteenth year of his reign, approximately 622 B.C., he launched a building project to restore the temple of God. A hundred years had passed since the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel and the Assyrian empire was on the verge of collapse. While the temple construction was going on, Hilkiah the high priest “found the book of the law in the house of the LORD” (2 Kings 22:8).
There is no mention in scripture of the book of the law being lost, nor any indication of when it had last been used in temple worship services. The last reference to the temple was at the beginning of Hezekiah’s reign. It says in 2 Chronicles 29:3, “He in the first year of his reign, in the first month, opened the doors of the house of the LORD, and repaired them.” That was in 715 B.C. It is possible the book was hidden during the reign of Queen Athaliah, along with Joash her grandson, in order to prevent the queen from destroying them around 840 B.C. (2 Chronicles 22:11-12).
Hilkiah the high priest gave the book to king Josiah’s scribe Shaphan. “And Shaphan the scribe shewed the king saying, Hilkiah the priest hath delivered me a book. And Shaphan read it before the king. And it came to pass when the king had heard the words of the book of the law, that he rent his clothes” (2 Kings 22:10-11). We don’t know whether Shaphan read the entire book of the law known as the Pentateuch or just the sections dealing with God’s commandments, but it is likely Shaphan concluded with the book of Deuteronomy which specifies the blessings and curses associated with keeping the law.
Josiah’s reaction to hearing the law indicated he was aware Judah was in trouble. Typically, a person rent his clothes as a sign of mourning, such as when Job received the news that all his children were dead (Job 1:20). Josiah sent several men to inquire of the LORD and he received a message through the prophetess Huldah. She said, “Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Tell the man that sent you to me, thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will bring evil upon this place, and upon the inhabitants thereof, even all the words of the book which the king of Judah read” (2 Kins 22:15-16).
The place God was referring to was Jerusalem. The holy city had been corrupted by idolatry and had reached the point where no one cared about the law anymore as evidenced by the high priest’s ignorance of the book of the law’s whereabouts. The good news for Josiah was God would spare him from going into captivity. God told him, “Behold therefore, I will gather thee unto thy fathers, and thou shalt be gathered into thy grave in peace; and thine eyes shall not see all the evil which I will bring upon this place” (2 Kings 22:20).